Around 120 people, from seasoned anarchist militants and trade unionists to students and professors came together at Wits University in Johannesburg on Wednesday 7 October 2009 for the launch of “Black Flame: The revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism”, the first of a two volume series on anarchist history and theory by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt. The room was filled up so fast and so quickly that latecomers had to find space on the stairs - one of the biggest launches at the university in years. [Nederlands]
It was hosted by the Johannesburg Amandla! collective, a broad left group, along with the Sociology department. Following an introduction by the hosts, there were presentations from both authors on what they hoped to achieve in publishing the book and a brief history of anarchism and some of its notable achievements. As noted by the authors, "Black Flame" has already received much publicity, including a positive mention at the recent Congress of South African Trade Unions congress by Cosatu general-secretary Zweli Vavi. Its outlook is internationalist and global; its aim is to recover the "proletarian practice" of anarchism and syndicalism.
Proceedings were then opened to the floor, with lively discussion. Proceedings were participatory and excited, quite the opposite of most book launches - an example of the engagement and debate anarchism promotes. Many issues were raised, although the authors generally steered discussion away from detailed historical debates towards current concerns and issues of general relevance. For example, the vision of syndicalism - democratic, transformative, revolutionary unionism - was highlighted, as was the anarchist and syndicalist role in anti-colonial struggles in the twentieth century.
The floor also made many key points, like the anarchist from Zimbabwe who argued that country's pro-democracy movement (sold out by the Movement for Democratic Change under Morgan Tsvangirai) could stand to learn a lot from the principles and history of anarchism as laid out in "Black Flame".
There was a great deal of interest, as testified by the rapid sales before and afterwards.
Predictably a few old school Marxists made an attempt to discredit anarchism and glorify the Soviet Union (including its invasion of Afghanistan). This did not go down well: almost the whole house broke out into laughter after one such diatribe. An anarchist militant from Zimbabwe present neatly refuted any nostalgia for the Soviet Union, showing how the Zanu-PF regime and Mugabe were militarily supported by the USSR and China - including in the genocidal Matabeleland Massacres, in which over 30 thousand mostly Ndebele people were killed.
On the whole, though, this blast from the past was fine propaganda for anarchism, exposing the authoritarians - an argument for the democratic, open, libertarian vision of anarchism. Not all questions were answered, of course, The authors tended towards the end to refer people to the book, pushing folks with an interest in anarchism or radical politics and history to read "Black Flame". There may have been some lost opportunities here, but although some questions were left unanswered the launch closed on a great notes.
A large group of comrades then gathered at the Wits Post-Graduate Club for after-launch drinks and discussions that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
If the intention was to mainstream the book and bring discussion of anarchism into mainstream academic circles, which it was, then the decision to launch it at Wits (with the crowd this entailed) was the right one. The linkage with Amandla! did bring in a wider audience, though, and helped set a more activist tone.
What is necessary now is to capture the momentum generated from the first launch and the publicity that "Black Flame" has received to try and make it accessible to working class militants, with workshops and targetted distribution.